Imagine the following story. A boy meets a girl, they fall in love, and they live happily ever after. Boring, right? How about this story? A guy wants to be free and live his own life, so he does it. Another boring story, right? What’s the problem? There’s no tension or conflict.
Conflict creates tension, which creates suspense and audience interest. Audiences don’t care necessarily what will happen. In every story, audiences know that the hero will either succeed (most of the time) or fail (mostly in horror films). The suspense comes from wondering how the hero will succeed or at least try to succeed.
The first rule of drama is that nothing should come easy for the hero. One way to stop the hero is to provide a physical obstacle. In every disaster film such as “San Andreas” or “2012,” the physical obstacle is usually something big that’s eye catching like skyscrapers tipping over or tidal waves smashing into coastlines and flinging aircraft carriers around like bath tub toys.
However, physical obstacles alone are interesting but not compelling. A higher class of conflict comes from direct opposition. What happens when two characters want opposing goals? Now they’ll both fight for what they want and it’s interesting to see how they’ll fight and who will win.
In “Finding Nemo,” the hero tries to cling to a whale’s mouth in fear of being killed. However his friend, Dory, screams at him to let go. Finally, the hero lets go and finds that he and his friend Dory get blasted out of the whale to safety.
In “Aliens,” the aliens are tearing apart the space marines until Ripley takes charge, drives the armored personnel carrier closer to the marines, and runs over several aliens in the process. However, she does save some of the marines although most of them get wiped out. That’s a battle between the aliens and the humans where the humans lose.
Conflict between characters is always more interesting than conflict between a physical obstacle. “The Hunger Games” was interesting not because of the physical obstacles in the game like forest fires and fireballs flying through the air, but because of the humans threatening the hero. The hero has to survive the physical obstacle of the game along with fighting against the other tributes who are trying to kill her.
Yet what’s even more interesting than conflict between characters is conflict within the hero. The hero has a choice of making a decision, so watching the hero decide creates the greatest tension of all.
In “Casablanca,” Rick has the letters of transit that he’s brought with him to the airport. Now the big question is whether he’ll use them to leave with his ex-girlfriend or not. What surprises us is his decision to shoot the Nazi soldier and give the letters of transit to his ex-girlfriend so she can escape with her husband and continue his fight against the Nazis.
“Star Wars” offered a similar tension filled moment when Luke hears Obi-wan’s voice urging him to use the Force. At that moment, Luke decides to turn off his targeting computer.
The hero’s decision when faced with a dilemma creates greater tension. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero has proof that her client is innocent, yet if she reveals that proof her client will be publicly embarrassed. How she solves this dilemma is what makes the tension and suspense so admirable.
It’s never what the hero does so much as why and how.\r\n\r\nSo the three ways to increase tension and suspense are:
- Physical obstacles
- Conflict with others
- Internal struggles within the hero’s own mind
Never make life easy for your hero. The more obstacles your hero needs to overcome, the more exciting the story and the more we’ll respect your hero. Don’t take the easy way out and don’t let your hero take the easy way out. Make your hero struggle and fight for everything because that will make the battle worth it in the end.